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Don't throw out your Christmas tree! Turn it into a wildlife sanctuary

Three men dressed in cold weather gear load recycled Christmas trees into a small boat floating at the bottom of a cement boat ramp leading into a lake.
Dan Wright
Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife
Ohio Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Matt Wolfe stands in a boat loaded with several recycled Christmas trees while Berlin Wildlife Coordinator Joe May (in overalls) and Fish Unit Leader Matt Backhaus tie up the trees before placing them in Berlin Lake in January, 2021. The lake lies at the juncture of Stark, Portage and Mahoning counties in Northeast Ohio.

Now that Christmas and New Year’s Day are behind us, live-cut Christmas trees are beginning to show up at the curb as people put away their holiday decorations.

These trees can have a second life, away from the landfill, as sanctuaries for birds, mammals, even fish, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife.

Ideastream Public Media’s Amy Eddings spoke with Division of Wildlife Fisheries Biologist Matt Wolfe about its Christmas tree recycling program.

Tell me how recycled live-cut Christmas trees can be repurposed as habitat.

So, in its simplest form, when you recycle Christmas trees, they're basically a sort of brushy-type environment that some wildlife likes to utilize — some local birds, squirrels, rabbits, most notably. So, they will be able to actually benefit off of having that in the backyard just to be used as a form of cover.

Now, on the fish end of things, which I deal with all the time, fish need that cover as well, because if you drain... any one of our major lakes around Northeast Ohio, those lakes are going to look very similar to a bare parking lot. There is no habitat for those fish. So, when you start talking about habitat loss and reservoir aging, if you can introduce habitat even in the form of a live Christmas tree that was recently cut, it will serve as habitat for fish sometimes in the short term and hopefully in the long term.

ODNR has four programs to collect live, cut Christmas trees and recycle them. There's one in Northeast Ohio in Mahoning County. Tell me about it.

So, each year, the Mahoning County Green Team partners with us and Mahoning County Sheriff's Office to run a large recycling program for the used Christmas trees across Mahoning County.

We've been doing this for over a decade, and every year we probably average around 1,500 to 2,000 trees that we recycle. You know, most of the places in Youngstown or the Mahoning County area are just going to throw them at the curb and just throw them out with their regular refuse. But if we can get ahold of those trees and recycle them for wildlife and fish use, that serves not only to save what's going into the landfill but also benefits us and our work as well.

You collect these trees and then what? You tie them to an anchor and throw them into a lake?

More or less. We try to use as much recycled goods as possible. So, what we will actually do is we... recycle used parking bumpers. Everybody’s familiar with the giant six-foot-by-six-inch-by-six-inch parking bumpers in a parking lot.

Many people try to get rid of those now because they just are difficult to maintain. We'll actually recycle those, use those for weight, place one of those in the front of a boat and then place trees on them and tie them to that parking bumper and introduce them to the lake that way.

Two men load several live-cut, recycled Christmas trees onto a boat on the muddy shore of Berlin Lake, Ohio, on an overcast day in January 2021.
Dan Wright
Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife
Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife Fish Unit Leader Matt Backhaus (left) and Fisheries Biologist Matt Wolfe load several live-cut recycled Christmas trees onto a boat on Berlin Lake, Ohio, in January 2021.

And you've got an interactive map online that can help anglers find these fishing hotspots.

Correct. If you do any sort of search for Ohio Interactive Map, that'll pop up the ODNR’s Ohio Lake Map Resource page. And in there, you want to search for habitats. And when you zoom in on a given lake like I'm zooming in on Berlin [Lake] right now, there'll be individual little red fish dots that pop up on these maps.

Each one of those dots represent a location where we've placed trees at. Over the years we've probably placed well over 10,000 Christmas trees with our collaboration with Mahoning County Green Team. So, there's a lot of spots out there. You can use these trees to successfully have a good day on the water.

If somebody wants to participate in the Mahoning County Christmas tree recycling program, how would they do that?

So, first and foremost, if someone wants to recycle a tree, we will thank them because that is something that we can use for either fish or wildlife purposes. But I have to stress that these trees have to be clean. Granted, we want the needles on them. But if there's any sort of ornaments or lights or especially any of that fake spray snow stuff, definitely try to get as much of that off as possible because that is definitely an unnatural substance that we do not want to introduce into our lakes or woodland environments.

If you look up Mahoning County Green Team and look under their recycling sites for trees, there's a list of probably 12 or 13 different sites across Mahoning County where you can bring these trees to be recycled, too.

Matt Wolfe, fisheries biologist with the Division of Wildlife of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Thank you so much for joining me.

Thank you. Have a great day. And we hope to see you all out there fishing this year.

The Mahoning County Green Team posts its Christmas tree drop-off sites on its Facebook page. While the locations are in Mahoning County, people who live outside the county can drop off trees too.

Tree can be dropped off between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. through Jan. 31.

Some of the sites are:

  • Austintown Township Park – 6000 Kirk Rd.
  • Beloit Village Park – 17910 E. 5th St.
  • Berlin Township Bldg. – St. Rt. 224
  • City of Campbell, Warhust Rd.
  • Canfield Township Fire Station – 5007 Messerly Rd.
  • Craig Beach/Milton Twp. – 1979 Grandview
  • Ellsworth Twp. Fire Station – St. Rt. 45
  • Goshen Twp. maintenance garage – 12649 Seacrist Rd.
  • Green Twp. cemetery -St. Rt. 165 and Beaver Creek Rd.
  • Jackson Twp. Admin. Bldg. – 10613 Mahoning Ave.
  • Lowellville Village Street Dept. – 3 W. McGaffney Rd.
  • New Middletown/Springfield – 10720 Struthers Rd.
  • Poland Twp. Road Dept. – 7508 Clingan Rd.
  • Youngstown CCA building – 1771 Market St.


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